Page 8, 6th July 2007

6th July 2007
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Page 8, 6th July 2007 — 'of course you won, girls. I did Convent schools weren't
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'of course you won, girls. I did Convent schools weren't

the repressed, unhappy places of popular mythology, says Christina Farrell, introducing our readers' cherished memories of the nuns who educated them when I started convent school in 1969 the whiff of incense still lingered in the corridors. The nuns had "boys' " names and swept by in full habits, as though on castors. We had a Sister in the family so I was not unfamiliar with religious Life. But the nuns at school were different: ethereal, other-worldly and in control.

At some point, in the early 1970s, the Sisters got trendy. I can still recall the shock of seeing Sister Paul — now Sister Marie Elizabeth — with her silver hair, chic in a chignon. This was the age of so-called post-Vatican H enlightenment, so we had navy blue nuns and hippy artwork, Communion in the hand and faceto-face reconciliation. Nearly 40 years on I still haven't got over the embarrassment and scuttle thankfully into the darkest recesses of the confessional box.

And, my goodness, we were holy. I cringe now reading letters that I wrote, aged nine, full of "God blesses" and "pray to God". I dutifully put "SAG" on the back of my Christmas thank-you cards. Our religious instruction, however, was mixed. Gone were the days when convent girls could recite the Penny Catechism. Even to this day I can't, hand on heart, say I really know my act of contrition...

Nuns instil a heroic rebellion in their charges. We were never wilful and only occasionally, unintentionally, naughty. We were respectful and polite but created fantastical tales about our teachers. Convent girls are always romantic and in true Brontë fashion we had the ghost of a long-dead sister stalking the upper reaches of the avenue.

We once made Sister Emmanuel cry. Tracy Browne — I hope you are reading this — decided to liven up double history with an impression of Violet Elizabeth Bott. Just William was on television at the time and we were up to William the Conqueror. Tracy launched into her act: "William," she lisped, "will you play fairies?"

The back row collapsed into giggles. Tracy, emboldened by her captive audience, kept going until Sister Emmanuel suddenly cried out that we were making mock of her French accent. She burst into tears. We were mortified, and the whole class got detention.

Some of the Sisters were fabulous, inspiring teachers — others rather less so. Yet we left school with genuine affection for them, acknowledging their dedication. I display still an unearthly reverence for women in habits — a reverence shared, I'm pleased to say, by Rabbi Lionel Blue, who also loves nuns. Proper copper-bottomed ones, that is.

Twenty-five years ago the number of teaching Sisters on the staff at my convent was diminishing. Today, my old school has a lay head and I doubt there's a single Sister in the common room.

Did I survive being educated by nuns? Of course. I have little time for the pseudo-horror stories of some convent girls my age. Nuns in the 1970s and 1980s did inflict damage but it was only in the form of endless renditions of "Kum Bali Yak" in the round. Some of the fiercest critics of Catholic schooling today forget that they owe their own position in society and in government to nuns and Brothers who gave even the poorest and most underprivileged of children an education to be proud of.

The Sisters at my convent taught us that women could be independent and successful. They instilled in us a very real sense of natural justice and concern for the poor. To this day some of the holiest people I know are nuns. We never forgot that it is women who get things done, who carry the water and who hold the faith.

The author was a pupil at Beaulieu Convent, Jersey, between 1969 and 1983

YOUR STORIES

DURING WORLD WAR TWO, between the ages of five and 10, I was educated in a parish elementary school in Hertfordshire. The teachers were German nuns. Sisters of Our Lady, who had been given refugee status by the British Government when they fled the Nazi regime before the War. They were wonderful teachers, and their method of teaching English as a second language meant that I learned spelling and grammar rules unknown to pupils of native English teachers, which stood me in good stead in future years. I also acquired a Habit of occasionally capitalising Nouns in mid-sentence, as in German, which I still retain.

I have many memories of the nuns' lessons, but there was an even more importantjesson which we lear&:d by their example: that not all Germans are bad, contrary to Government-inspired propaganda during the War. I remember how this became apparent to us in air-raid class teacher used to make us practise taking cover if there was no time to go to the underground shelter. She used to call out in a very German accent, "Hitlair [Hitler] is coming!", at which we all had to dive under our strongly built oak and cast-iron desks and stay there. My memory is that it all seemed very exciting and adventurous, and at the same time really serious. We loved and trusted the Sisters, as they certainly cherished us.

— Mary Lodge, Birmingham AT THE AGE Of eight in early winter 1939 my family found itself in Tring, Hertfordshire. My brother was sent to Berkhamstead School, and I to the Convent of St Francis De Sales, Tring. They were, I think, Oblates of St Francis de Sales, a strange order of mostly very elderly French nuns, expelled from France at some time, and the only convent of that order in England. They wore the most amazing habits — their tops had strips of black velvet let into them. They made the black and white fine woollen check dresses for the pupils, which we wore with black wool stockings and purple overcoats and purple cloche hats.

I vividly recall two things about this convent school. First, the Rev Mother, Sister Cecille Agnes, was an accomplished singer. So every year the school put on a musical to entertain the town, so that Sister CA could sing the principal part, and the girl on the stage could mime it. Secondly, it was wartime and we were always a bit hungry. One day I and a few other girls bought penny bread rolls — bread wasn't rationed until after the war — and we were seen eating them by a staff member. The next day at assembly I (and only I) was hauled up before the whole school and reprimanded for eating in the street. It took me years to forgive Rev Mother for that!

— Ruth Ayres, by e-mail [THE AUTHOR and her sister were boarders at the Convent of Our Lady of Dolours in Loughborough, run by the Rosrninian Sisters of the Institute of Charity (1939-46).] We cannot speak too highly of our time being educated by the Sisters during the period of World War Two. At the time we were unaware of how wonderfully we were treated. Food never seemed to be in short supply and we enjoyed a varied diet. We only became aware of the deprivations of rationing when home for school holidays and we went shopping with our mother. The only time we were aware of any shortages was when we were asked at the start of one term to bring in two toilet rolls each.

Although cushioned from awareness of the bombing our parents were facing or the horrors of the War in general, the Sisters encouraged us to adopt the ship HMS Norfolk and to raise funds for comforts for the sailors. Politeness, good manners and obedience were expected. There was no great show of affection from the Sisters, but always a calm, serene and loving presence. On return to school from holidays, there was always a warm and loving welcome. We may have been short on hugs and kisses, but we knew we were loved.

When the bombing in London was at its height and it was considered too dangerous for us to go home for the holidays, the Sisters took us to their convents in Brigg and Baston in order for us to have a break from school.

We still treasure a letter dated October 16, 1940, sent by the then headmistress, Sister Mary Francesca (Davies), to our mother: "My dearest Mrs Woodbridge... I am sorry to hear that things are so bad in London and do indeed pray to God to keep you safe — however, remember that if anything did happen to you and your husband — which God forbid — your little ones would still stay at Loughboro and be thoroughly educated in order to place in their hands the means of a good position in their future life. I hope that this knowledge would be a little comfort to you as I am sure you worry about them when the bombs are dropping all round you. But as I say, don't worry, but trust in God that he will protect you and bring you through safe for the dear children's sake."

— Susan Woodbridge, Surrey DURING THE 1930s I attended a convent both as a day girl and as a boarder. We had a few lay teachers but most were nuns. On the whole, I think our teachers were fair and hardworking. I am left with a high regard for women who devoted their lives firstly to God and secondly to us, which meant they had no distractions and could really care about us and our learning.

At assembly (every morning and afternoon) the head would give out notices — reminders that while wearing school uniform we were ambassadors for our school. On one occasion she spoke of how she had been quite shocked to hear of a girl taking an aspirin for a headache. We were not expected to be "soft", but should develop a stoical attitude to life — perhaps the best lesson to be taught.

I can only say I am very glad to have been taught by those dedicated women who did a great job, and, yes. there was fun and laughter along with hard work.

— Barbara E Boys, Stockport [THE AUTHOR spent six years at Notre Dame Collegiate School in Leeds during the War years. and was taught primarily by nuns — before going on to become a teacher in Catholic schools herself.] My mother was also at Notre Dame. a boarder there in the very early days, and she remembered a nun called Sister Theresa, formerly Serafina Ganti, who would lift her bodily out of bed — for my mother was notoriously slow to rise in the mornings — and dump her, bedclothes and all. in the corridor. In my day, Sister Theresa had slowed down somewhat, but she still retained a particularly bony forefinger. with which she would poke any misbehaving child — and I was often one of them — the full length of the recreation room. She was an indefatigable fundraiser for the ship our school adopted during the War, and was never to be seen without her knitting, for we all had to learn to knit on four needles in order to produce socks for the sailors. On one occasion she became the heroine of the school, for when an incendiary bomb dropped in the grounds, Sister Theresa scooped it up and deposited it on grass, where she extinguished it with a stir IN OCTOBER 1939, because of the outbreak of war, I was sent as a boarder to a convent, aged four. We youngest children were in a small dormitory with a young nun. I thought the habit so complicated it must have been glued on to her.

One early morning, I tiptoed round her curtain and was very surprised to find her in a floral nightie, with brown ringlets!

— Mrs P Gaunt, Colchester




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